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His Garden's Cast of Thousands

Composting: Arlan Hurwitz houses his red wigglers in 'condos,' where they turn trash into rich castings for the soil. As the worms turn, flowers bloom.

July 27, 1996|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Greek philosopher Aristotle called them "the intestines of the earth." In contemporary times, fishing fans use them to bait hooks. But to Santa Ana resident Arlan Hurwitz, worms--specifically red wigglers--may just be modern society's salvation.

Hurwitz is a retired businessman--partner and corporate vice president of Aaron Brothers Art Marts. He is now enjoying a second career, as a gardening enthusiast, entrepreneur of garden-related goods and a zealous spokesman for the virtues of "vermicomposting." To the uninitiated, that means composting with worms.

With a landfill crisis building, environmentalists tout composting as a serious solution to processing the "green waste," or organic material, that constitutes at least 25% of refuse.

Grass clippings, leaves, plant prunings and other organic material, such as paper goods and kitchen scraps, are converted into compost, a valuable soil amendment and mulch.

Advocates of vermicomposting recommend harnessing the digestive powers of worms--specifically Eisenia foetida, commonly called red worms--in the composting process. Worms eat their way through tons of refuse and excrete castings--very rich, nutrient-dense, biologically active material that makes a great soil amendment.

"A pound of worms [about 1,000 worms] can convert a half-pound of organic garbage a day into worm castings, one of the richest soil amendments there is," Hurwitz said.

The concept of feeding green waste, kitchen scraps or newspapers to worms got a big boost by the book "Worms Eat My Garbage" by Mary Appelhof (1982, Flower Press). She explained how to create a backyard or basement worm farm that, with minimal cost and effort, would transform garbage into valuable castings.

Hurwitz said he became intrigued with the potential of worms when he visited a worm farm in Hemet in 1994. He already had a thriving business, Arlan & Sons, selling ratchet pruners and other garden tools. He included a worm farm at his display in the 1995 Home & Garden Show in Anaheim, and was astounded at the public response.

"It was overwhelming," he said. "The kids were especially excited. While the parents tended to hang back and think the worms were yucky, the kids were right into them."

Hurwitz created a worm farm and worm petting zoo for public display, and takes his traveling worm factory to local schools. He calls himself an "edutainer." He admits that he's also been called "the worm man."

Hurwitz enthusiastically displayed a farm with thousands of wriggling worms transforming cereal boxes, coffee grinds, lettuce leaves and shredded newspaper into castings.

"I'm educating the kids at the same time I'm entertaining them with the worm school and petting zoo. If I can teach the kids, they'll teach their parents."

*

Setting up a worm farm can involve an investment of anywhere from $6 for a heavyweight plastic bin with cover, to $120 for a worm condo called Can-O-Worms, developed and manufactured in Australia using all recycled plastic ([800] 770-7778).

The Can-O-Worms resembles a black plastic barbecue device. It consists of three trays set on a base.

The process starts by filling the first tray with shredded, damp newspaper. After letting it decompose for two weeks (to the point where worms will thrive in the bedding), a pound of red worms (available at bait stores) is added and covered with the lid.

As the worms begin to convert the shredded newspaper into castings, one-half pound of organic waste is deposited in that bottom tray and the cover replaced. This process is repeated as the worms consume the garbage and formulate castings.

"The beauty of this system is that, since the trays have small holes, the worms will migrate up from the lower level to the new bedding as the old has been consumed," Hurwitz said. "This process eliminates sorting or sifting the worms from casting to new material."

The process is continued until the third tray is added, which takes about one year. At that time, the worm condo is filled with 20,000 wriggling worms, multiplying and munching yesterday's garbage and converting it into today's soil enrichment. Each tray will yield approximately 15 pounds of worm castings, according to Hurwitz.

The castings can be added directly into the landscape or mixed with potting soil for an amendment or planting mix for houseplants.

"The system will process up to 10 pounds of garbage a day when it's in full swing," Hurwitz said. "But if there isn't that much on hand, the worms will adapt to whatever amount is available."

Hurwitz said the worms eat all his garbage, with the exception of tin, glass and other inorganic matter.

*

Horticulturist Steve Williams, a master gardener through the Fullerton Arboretum, conducts composting and vermicomposting workshops at the arboretum and Orange County high schools. He has been vermicomposting at his home in West Covina for almost 10 years.

"It's very easy, and the worm castings are great for gardens and houseplants," he said.

He bought his worm bin through a mail-order catalog and for several years had it inside his home.

"There's nothing unpleasant about it," he said.

Several years ago heavy rains drove hordes of ants indoors seeking shelter. They decided to move into the worm bin as a warm, safe place to nest.

Williams decided worms and ants were better off outdoors, and the worm bin was relocated to his patio.

Hurwitz will display his worm farm at the 1996 Anaheim Home and Garden Show, Aug. 17-25.

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